Feb
18
2021
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Tired of ‘Zoom University’? So is edtech

The rise of “Zoom University” was only possible because edtech wasn’t ready to address the biggest opportunity of the past year: remote learning at scale. Of course, the term encapsulates more than just Zoom, it’s a nod to how schools had to rapidly adopt enterprise video conferencing software to keep school in session in the wake of closures brought on by the virus’ rapid spread.

Now, nearly a year since students were first sent home because of the coronavirus, a cohort of edtech companies is emerging, emboldened with millions in venture capital, ready to take back the market.

The new wave of startups are slicing and dicing the same market of students and teachers who are fatigued by Zoom University, which — at best — often looks like a gallery view with a chat bar. Four of the companies that are gaining traction include Class, Engageli, Top Hat and InSpace. It signals a shift from startups playing in the supplemental education space and searching to win a spot in the largest chunk of a students day: the classroom.

While each startup has its own unique strategy and product, the founders behind them all need to answer the same question: Can they make digital learning a preferred mode of pedagogy and comprehension — and not merely a backup — after the pandemic is over?

Answering that question begins with deciding whether videoconferencing is what online, live learning should look like.

Ground up

“This is completely grounds up; there is no Zoom, Google Meets or Microsoft Teams anywhere in the vicinity,” said Dan Avida, co-founder of Engageli, just a few minutes into the demo of his product.

Engageli, a new startup founded by Avida, Daphne Koller, Jamie Nacht Farrell and Serge Plotkin, raised $14.5 million in October to bring digital learning to college universities. The startup wants to make big lecture-style classes feel more intimate, and thinks digitizing everything from the professor monologues to side conversations between students is the way to go.

Engageli is a videoconferencing platform in that it connects students and professors over live video, but the real product feature that differentiates it, according to Avida, is in how it views the virtual classroom.

Upon joining the platform, each student is placed at a virtual table with another small group of students. Within those pods, students can chat, trade notes, screenshot the lecture and collaborate, all while hearing a professor lecture simultaneously.

“The FaceTime session going on with friends or any other communication platform is going to happen,” Avida said. “So it might as well run it through our platform.”

The tables can easily be scrambled to promote different conversation or debates, and teachers can pop in and out without leaving their main screen. It’s a riff on Zoom’s breakout rooms, which let participants jump into separate calls within a bigger call.

There’s also a notetaking feature that allows students to screenshot slides and live annotate them within the Engageli platform. Each screenshot comes with a hyperlink that will take the student back to the live recording of that note, which could help with studying.

“We don’t want to be better than Zoom, we want to be different than Zoom,” Avida said. Engageli can run on a variety of products of differing bandwidth, from Chromebooks to iPads and PCs.

Engageli is feature-rich to the point that it has to onboard teachers, its main customer, in two phases, a process that can take over an hour. While Avida says that it only takes five minutes to figure out how to use the platform to hold a class, it does take longer to figure out how to fully take advantage of all the different modules. Teachers and students need to have some sort of digital savviness to be able to use the platform, which is both a barrier to entry for adoption but also a reason why Engageli can tout that it’s better than a simple call. Complexity, as Avida sees it, requires well-worth-it time.

The startup’s ambition doesn’t block it from dealing with contract issues. Other video conferencing platforms can afford to be free or already have been budgeted into. Engageli currently charges $9.99 or less per student seat for its platform. Avida says that with Zoom, “it’s effectively free because people have already paid for it, so we have to demonstrate why we’re much better than those products.”

Engageli’s biggest hurdle is another startup’s biggest advantage.

Built on top of Zoom

Class, launched less than a year ago by Blackboard co-founder Michael Chasen, integrates exclusively with Zoom to offer a more customized classroom for students and teachers alike. The product, currently in private paid beta, helps teachers launch live assignments, track attendance and understand student engagement levels in real time.

While positioning an entire business on Zoom could lead to platform risk, Chasen sees it as a competitive advantage that will help the startup stay relevant after the pandemic.

“We’re not really pitching it as pandemic-related,” Chasen said. “No school has only said that we’re going to plan to use this for a month, and very few K-12 schools say we’re only looking at this in case a pandemic comes again.” Chasen says that most beta customers say online learning will be part of their instructional strategy going forward.

Investors clearly see the opportunity in the company’s strategy, from distribution to execution. Earlier this month, Class announced it had raised $30 million in Series A financing, just 10 weeks after raising a $16 million seed round. Raising that much pre-launch gives the startup key wiggle room, but it also gives validation: a number of Zoom’s earliest investors, including Emergence Capital and Bill Tai, who wrote the first check into Zoom, have put money into Class.

“At Blackboard, we had a six to nine month sales cycle; we’d have to explain that e-learning is a thing,” Chasen said, who was at the LMS business for 15 years. “[With Class] we don’t even have to pitch. It wraps up in a month, and our sales cycle is just showing people the product.

Unlike Engageli, Class is selling to both K-12 institutions and higher-education institutions, which means its product is more focused on access and ease of use instead of specialized features. The startup has over 6,000 institutions, from high schools to higher education institutions, on the waitlist to join.

Image Credits: Class

Right now, Class software is only usable on Macs, but its beta will be available on iPhone, Windows and Android in the near future. The public launch is at the end of the quarter.

“K-12 is in a bigger bind,” he said, but higher-ed institutions are fully committed to using synchronous online learning for the “long haul.”

“Higher-ed has already been taking this step towards online learning, and they’re now taking the next step,” he said. “Whereas with a lot of K-12, I’m actually seeing that this is the first step that they’re taking.”

The big hurdle for Class, and any startup selling e-learning solutions to institutions, is post-pandemic utility. While institutions have traditionally been slow to adopt software due to red tape, Chasen says that both of Class’ customers, higher ed and K-12, are actively allocating budget for these tools. The price for Class ranges between $10,000 to $65,000 annually, depending on the number of students in the classes.

“We have not run into a budgeting problem in a single school,” he said. “Higher ed has already been taking this step towards online learning, and they’re now taking the next step, whereas K-12, this is the first step they’re taking.”

Asynchronously, silly

Engageli and Class are both trying to innovate on the live learning experience, but Top Hat, which raised $130 million in a Series E round this past week, thinks that the future is pre-recorded video.

Top Hat digitizes textbooks, but instead of putting a PDF on a screen, the startup fits features such as polls and interactive graphics in the text. The platform has attracted millions of students on this premise.

“We’re seeing a lot of companies putting emphasis on creating a virtual classroom,” he said. “But replicating the same thing in a different medium is never a good idea…nobody wants to stare at a screen and then have the restraint of having to show up at a previous pre-prescribed time.”

In July, Top Hat launched Community to give teachers a way to make class more than just a YouTube video. Similar to ClassDojo, Community provides a space for teachers and students to converse and stay up to date on shared materials. The interface also allows students to create private channels to discuss assignments and work on projects, as well as direct message their teachers.

CEO Mike Silagadze says that Top Hat tried a virtual classroom tool early on, and “very quickly learned that it was fundamentally just the wrong strategy.” His mindset contrasts with the demand that Class and Engageli have proven so far, to which Silagadze says might not be as long-term as they think.

“There’s definitely a lot of interest that’s generated in people signing up to beta lists and like wanting to try it out. But when people really get into it, everyone pretty much drops off and focuses more on asynchronous, small and in-person groups.”

Instead, the founder thinks that “schools are going to double down on the really valuable in-person aspects of higher education that they couldn’t provide before” and deliver other content, like large lecture-style classes or meetings, through asynchronous content delivery.

This is similar to what Jeff Maggioncalda, the CEO of Coursera, told TechCrunch in November: Colleges are going to re-invest in their in-person and residential experiences, and begin offering credentials and content online to fill in the gaps.

“We’ve been on the journey to create a more and more complete platform that our customers can use since almost day one,” Silagadze said. “What the pandemic has brought is much more comprehensive testing functionality that Top Hat has rolled out and better communication tooling so basically better chat and communication tooling for professors.”

TopHat costs $30 per semester, per student. Currently Top Hat has most of its paying customers coming in through its content offering, the digital textbooks, instead of this learning platform.

College spin-out

InSpace, a startup spinning out of Champlain college, is similarly focused on making the communication between professors and students more natural. Dr. Narine Hall, the founder of the startup, is a professor herself who just wanted class to “feel more natural” when it was being conducted.

InSpace is similar to some of the virtual HQ platforms that have popped up over the past few months. The platforms, which my colleague Devin Coldewey aptly dubbed Sims for Enterprise, are trying to create the feel of an office or classroom online but without a traditional gallery view or conference call vibe. The potential success of inSpace and others could signal how the future of work will blend gaming and socialization for distributed teams.

InSpace is using spatial gaming infrastructure to create spontaneity. The technology allows users to only hear people within their nearby proximity, and get quieter as they walk, or click, away. When applied to a virtual world, spatial technology can give the feeling of a hallway bump-in.

Similar to Engageli, inSpace is rethinking how an actual class is conducted. In inSpace, students don’t have to leave the main call to have a conversation during inSpace, which they do in Zoom. Students can just toggle over to their own areas and a professor can see teamwork being done in real time. When a student has a question, their bubble becomes bigger, which is easier to track than the hand-raise feature, says Hall.

InSpace has a different monetization strategy than other startups. It charges $15 a month per-educator or “host” versus per-student, which Hall says was so educators could close contracts “as fast as possible.” Hall agrees with other founders that schools have a high demand for the product, but she says that the decision-making process around buying new tooling continues to be difficult in schools with tight budgets, even amid a pandemic. There are currently 100 customers on the platform.

So far, Hall sees inSpace working best with classes that include 25 people, with a max of 50 people.

The company was born out of her own frustrations as a teacher. In grad school, Hall worked on research that combined proximity-based interactions with humans. When August rolled around and she needed a better solution than WebEx or Zoom, she turned to that same research and began building code atop of her teachings. It led to inSpace, which recently announced that it has landed $2.5 million in financing led by Boston Seed Capital.

The differences between each startup, from strategy to monetization to its view of the competition, are music to Zoom’s ears. Anne Keough Keehn, who was hired as Zoom’s Global Education Lead just nine months ago, says that the platform has a “very open attitude and policy about looking at how we best integrate…and sometimes that’s going to be a co-opetition.”

“In the past there has been too much consolidation and therefore it limits choices,” Keehn said. “And we know everybody in education likes to have choices.” Zoom will be used differently in a career office versus a class, and in a happy hour versus a wedding; the platform sees opportunity in it all beyond the “monolithic definition” that video-conferencing has had for so long.

And, despite the fact that this type of response is expected by a well-trained executive at a big company in the spotlight, maybe Keehn is onto something here: Maybe the biggest opportunity in edtech right now is that there is opportunity and money in the first place, for remote learning, for better video-conferencing and for more communication.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story claims that TopHat’s community platform cost $30 per student, per month. TopHat has clarified since that the community platform is free, but its core product is sold for this cost. An update has been made to reflect this clarification.

Nov
18
2020
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Will Zoom Apps be the next hot startup platform?

When Zoom announced Zapps last month — the name has since been wisely changed to Zoom Apps — VC Twitter immediately began speculating that Zoom could make the leap from successful video conferencing service to becoming a launching pad for startup innovation. It certainly caught the attention of former TechCrunch writer and current investor at Signal Fire Josh Constine, who tweeted that “Zoom’s new ‘Zapps’ app platform will crush or king-make lots of startups.”

As Zoom usage exploded during the pandemic and it became a key tool for business and education, the idea of using a video conferencing platform to build a set of adjacent tooling makes a lot of sense. While the pandemic will come to an end, we have learned enough about remote work that the need for tools like Zoom will remain long after we get the all-clear to return to schools and offices.

We are already seeing promising startups like Mmhmm, Docket and ClassEdu built with Zoom in mind, and these companies are garnering investor attention. In fact, some investors believe Zoom could be the next great startup ecosystem.

Moving beyond video conferencing

Salesforce paved the way for Zoom more than a decade ago when it opened up its platform to developers and later launched the AppExchange as a distribution channel. Both were revolutionary ideas at the time. Today we are seeing Zoom building on that.

Jim Scheinman, founding managing partner at Maven Ventures and an early Zoom investor (who is credited with naming the company) says he always saw the service as potentially a platform play. “I’ve been saying publicly, before anyone realized it, that Zoom is the next great open platform on which to build billion-dollar businesses,” Scheinman told me.

He says he talked with Zoom leadership about opening up the platform to external developers several years ago before the IPO. It wasn’t really a priority at that point, but COVID-19 pushed the idea to the forefront. “Post-IPO and COVID, with the massive growth of Zoom on both the enterprise and consumer side, it became very clear that an app marketplace is now a critical growth area for Zoom, which creates a huge opportunity for nascent startups to scale,” he said.

Jason Green, founder and managing director at Emergence Capital (another early investor in Zoom and Salesforce) agreed: “Zoom believes that adding capabilities to the core Zoom platform to make it more functional for specific use cases is an opportunity to build an ecosystem of partners similar to what Salesforce did with AppExchange in the past.”

Building the platform

Before a platform can succeed with developers, it requires a critical mass of users, a bar that Zoom has clearly passed. It also needs a set of developer tools to connect to the various services on the platform. Then the substantial user base acts as a ready market for the startup. Finally, it requires a way to distribute those creations in a marketplace.

Zoom has been working on the developer components and brought in industry veteran Ross Mayfield, who has been part of two collaboration startups in his career, to run the developer program. He says that the Zoom Apps development toolset has been designed with flexibility to allow developers to build applications the way that they want.

For starters, Zoom has created WebViews, a way to embed functionality into an application like Zoom. To build WebViews in Zoom, the company created a JS Kit, which in combination with existing Zoom APIs enables developers to build functionality inside the Zoom experience. “So we’re giving developers a lot of flexibility in what experience they create with WebViews plus using our very rich set of API’s that are part of the existing platform and creating some new API’s to create the experience,” he said.

Oct
29
2020
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Donut launches Watercooler, an easy way to socialize online with coworkers

If you miss hanging out with your coworkers but don’t want to spend a single second more on Zoom, the latest product from Donut might be the answer.

The startup is launching its new Watercooler product today while also announcing that it has raised $12 million in total funding, led by Accel and with participation from Bloomberg Beta, FirstMark, Slack Fund and various angel investors.

Co-founder and CEO Dan Manian told me that this is actually money that the startup raised before the pandemic, across multiple rounds. It just didn’t announce the fundraising until now.

The startup’s vision, Manian said, is “to create human connection between people at work.” Its first product, Intros, connects teammates who didn’t already know each via Slack, often with the goal of setting up quick coffee meetings (originally in-person and now virtual).

Donut says it has facilitated 4 million connections across 12,000 companies (including The New York Times, Toyota and InVision), with 1 million of those connections made since the beginning of the pandemic.

However, Manian said customers have been asking Donut to facilitate more frequent interactions, especially since most people aren’t going to have these coffee meetings every day. At the same time, people face are the duelling issues of isolation and Zoom fatigue, where “the antidote to one thing makes the other pain worse.” And he suggested that one of the hardest things to recreate while so many of us are working remotely are “all the little microinteractions that you have while you’re working.”

That’s where Watercooler comes in — as the name suggests, it’s designed to replicate the feeling of hanging out at the office watercooler, having brief, low-key conversations. Like Intros, it integrates with Slack, creating a new channel where Watercooler will post fun, conversation-starting questions like “‘What’s your favorite form of potato?” or “What’s one thing you’ve learned in your career that you wish you knew sooner?”

Talking about these topics shouldn’t take much time, but Manian argued that brief conversations are important: “Those things add up to friendship over time, they’re what actually transform you from coworker to friend.” And those friendships are important for employers too, because they help with team cohesion and retention.

I fully endorse the idea of a Slack watercooler — in fact, the TechCrunch editorial team has a very active “watercooler” channel and I’m always happy to waste time there. My big question was: Why do companies need to purchase a product for this?

Donut Watercooler

Donut Watercooler

Manian said that there were “a bunch of our early adopters” who had tried doing this manually, but it was always in the “past tense”: “It got too hard to come up with the questions, or it took real work coming up with them, whoever was doing it already had a it full time job.”

With Watercooler, on the other hand, the company can choose from pre-selected topics and questions, set the frequency with which those questions are posted and then everything happens automatically.

Manian also noted that different organizations will focus on different types of questions. There are no divisive political questions included, but while some teams will stick to easy questions about things like potatoes and breakfast foods, others will get into more substantive topics like the ways that people prefer to receive feedback.

And yes, Manian thinks companies will still need these tools after the pandemic is over.

“Work has fundamentally changed,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll put remote work back in the bottle. I think it’s here to stay.”

At the same time, he described the past few months as “training wheels” for a hybrid model, where some team members go back to the office while others continue working remotely. In his view, teams will face an even bigger challenge then: To keep their remote members feeling like they’re connected and in-the-loop.

 

Oct
27
2020
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Daily Crunch: Zoom adds end-to-end encryption to free calls

Zoom adds a much-requested feature (but with a catch), TikTok partners with Shopify and Jack Dorsey lays out his argument for tomorrow’s Senate hearing. This is your Daily Crunch for October 27, 2020.

The big story: Zoom adds end-to-end encryption to free calls

Zoom was criticized earlier this year for saying it would only offer end-to-end encryption to paid users. Now it says free users will have the option as well, starting in Zoom 5.4.0 on both desktop and mobile.

There are, however, a few catches. If you use end-to-end encryption in a free meeting, features like cloud recording, live transcription and meeting reactions will not be available, nor will participants be able to join the call by phone.

In addition, you’ll need to provide a phone number and billing information. And you’ll need to use the Zoom app rather than joining a meeting via web browser.

The tech giants

TikTok partners with Shopify on social commerce — At launch, the agreement allows Shopify merchants to create, run and optimize their TikTok marketing campaigns directly from the Shopify dashboard.

How Jack Dorsey will defend Twitter in tomorrow’s Senate hearing on Section 230 — In his opening statement, the Twitter CEO calls Section 230 “the Internet’s most important law for free speech and safety” and focuses on the kind of cascading effects that could arise if tech’s key legal shield comes undone.

Microsoft stock flat despite better-than-expected earnings, strong Azure growth — In the three months ending September 30, Microsoft had revenues of $37.2 billion and per-share profit of $1.82.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Next-gen skincare, silk without spiders and pollution for lunch: Meet the biotech startups pitching at IndieBio’s Demo Day — Starting in 2015, IndieBio has provided resources to founders solving complex challenges with biotech, from fake meat to sustainability.

SpaceX launches Starlink app and provides pricing and service info to early beta testers — In terms of pricing, SpaceX says the cost for participants in this beta program will be $99 per month, plus a one-time cost of $499 for hardware.

SimilarWeb raises $120M for its AI-based market intelligence platform for sites and apps — The company will expand through acquisitions and its own R&D, with a focus on providing more analytics services to larger enterprises.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

Five startup theses that will transform the 2020s — Danny Crichton lays out five clusters: wellness, climate, data society, creativity and fundamentals.

Ten favorite startups from Techstars’ October 2020 class — Ten favorites culled from the Atlanta, Los Angeles and New York City cohorts, as well as its accelerator with Western Union.

(Reminder: Extra Crunch is our membership program, which aims to democratize information about startups. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

Hands-on: Sony’s DualSense PS5 controller could be a game changer — The question is whether developers will truly embrace the new haptics and audio features.

T-Mobile launches new TVision streaming bundles, pricing starts at $10 per month — The carrier is launching new skinny bundles of live TV and streaming services to compete with expensive cable subscriptions.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

Oct
14
2020
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Daily Crunch: Zoom launches its events marketplace

Zoom has a new marketplace and new integrations, Spotify gets a new format and we review Microsoft’s Surface Laptop Go. This is your Daily Crunch for October 14, 2020.

The big story: Zoom launches its events marketplace

Zoom’s new OnZoom marketplace allows anyone to host and sell tickets for virtual events. It’s also integrating the ability for nonprofits to accept donations.

The company made a couple other announcements at its Zoomtopia user conference. For one thing, it’s also integrating with a starting lineup of 35 third-party “Zapps,” allowing products like Asana and Dropbox to integrate directly into the Zoom experience.

In addition, Zoom said it will begin rolling out end-to-end encryption (a feature it’s been promising since acquiring Keybase in May) to users next week.

The tech giants

Spotify introduces a new music-and-spoken word format, open to all creators — The new format is designed to reproduce the radio-like experience of listening to a DJ talk about the music, and it also enables the creation of music-filled podcasts.

Microsoft reverse engineers a budget computer with the Surface Laptop Go — Brian Heater writes that the Laptop Go is a strange and sometimes successful mix of Surface design and budget decisions.

Google launches a suite of tech-powered tools for reporters, Journalist Studio — The suite includes a host of existing tools as well as two new products aimed at helping reporters search across large documents and visualizing data.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Getaround raises a $140M Series E amid rebound in short-distance travel — The rebound is real: I took my first Getaround this weekend.

Augury taps $55M for tech that predicts machine faults from vibration, sound and temperature — The startup works with large enterprises like Colgate and Heineken to maintain machines in their production and distribution lines.

Plenty has raised over $500M to grow fruits and veggies indoors — The funding was led by existing investor SoftBank Vision Fund and included the berry farming giant Driscoll’s.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

What the iPhone 12 tells us about the state of the smartphone industry in 2020 — While the iPhone 12 was no doubt in development long before the current pandemic, the pandemic’s global shutdown has only exacerbated many existing problems for smartphone makers.

Databricks crossed $350M run rate in Q3, up from $200M one year ago — The data analytics company scaled rapidly to put itself on an obvious IPO path.

Dear Sophie: I came on a B-1 visa, then COVID-19 happened. How can I stay? — The latest advice from immigration lawyer Sophie Alcorn.

(Reminder: Extra Crunch is our subscription membership program, which aims to democratize information about startups. And we’re having a fall sale!)

Everything else

NASA loads 14 companies with $370M for ‘tipping point’ technologies — NASA has announced more than a third of a billion dollars’ worth of “Tipping Point” contracts awarded to over a dozen companies pursuing potentially transformative space technologies.

Harley-Davidson should keep making e-motorcycles — That’s Jake Bright’s takeaway after three weeks with the LiveWire e-motorcycle.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

Oct
14
2020
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Zoom to start first phase of E2E encryption rollout next week

Zoom will begin rolling out end-to-end encryption to users of its videoconferencing platform from next week, it said today.

The platform, whose fortunes have been supercharged by the pandemic-driven boom in remote working and socializing this year, has been working on rebooting its battered reputation in the areas of security and privacy since April — after it was called out on misleading marketing claims of having E2E encryption (when it did not). E2E is now finally on its way though.

“We’re excited to announce that starting next week, Zoom’s end-to-end encryption (E2EE) offering will be available as a technical preview, which means we’re proactively soliciting feedback from users for the first 30 days,” it writes in a blog post. “Zoom users — free and paid — around the world can host up to 200 participants in an E2EE meeting on Zoom, providing increased privacy and security for your Zoom sessions.”

Zoom acquired Keybase in May, saying then that it was aiming to develop “the most broadly used enterprise end-to-end encryption offering”.

However, initially, CEO Eric Yuan said this level of encryption would be reserved for fee-paying users only. But after facing a storm of criticism the company enacted a swift U-turn — saying in June that all users would be provided with the highest level of security, regardless of whether they are paying to use its service or not.

Zoom confirmed today that Free/Basics users who want to get access to E2EE will need to participate in a one-time verification process — in which it will ask them to provide additional pieces of information, such as verifying a phone number via text message — saying it’s implementing this to try to reduce “mass creation of abusive accounts”.

“We are confident that by implementing risk-based authentication, in combination with our current mix of tools — including our work with human rights and children’s safety organizations and our users’ ability to lock down a meeting, report abuse, and a myriad of other features made available as part of our security icon — we can continue to enhance the safety of our users,” it writes.

Next week’s roll out of a technical preview is phase 1 of a four-stage process to bring E2E encryption to the platform.

This means there are some limitations — including on the features that are available in E2EE Zoom meetings (you won’t have access to join before host, cloud recording, streaming, live transcription, Breakout Rooms, polling, 1:1 private chat, and meeting reactions); and on the clients that can be used to join meetings (for phase 1 all E2EE meeting participants must join from the Zoom desktop client, mobile app, or Zoom Rooms). 

The next phase of the E2EE rollout — which will include “better identity management and E2EE SSO integration”, per Zoom’s blog — is “tentatively” slated for 2021.

From next week, customers wanting to check out the technical preview must enable E2EE meetings at the account level and opt-in to E2EE on a per-meeting basis.

All meeting participants must have the E2EE setting enabled in order to join an E2EE meeting. Hosts can enable the setting for E2EE at the account, group, and user level and can be locked at the account or group level, Zoom notes in an FAQ.

The AES 256-bit GCM encryption that’s being used is the same as Zoom currently uses but here combined with public key cryptography — which means the keys are generated locally, by the meeting host, before being distributed to participants, rather than Zoom’s cloud performing the key generating role.

“Zoom’s servers become oblivious relays and never see the encryption keys required to decrypt the meeting contents,” it explains of the E2EE implementation.

If you’re wondering how you can be sure you’ve joined an E2EE Zoom meeting a dark padlock will be displayed atop the green shield icon in the upper left corner of the meeting screen. (Zoom’s standard GCM encryption shows a checkmark here.)

Meeting participants will also see the meeting leader’s security code — which they can use to verify the connection is secure. “The host can read this code out loud, and all participants can check that their clients display the same code,” Zoom notes.

Oct
08
2020
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Headroom, which uses AI to supercharge videoconferencing, raises $5M

Videoconferencing has become a cornerstone of how many of us work these days — so much so that one leading service, Zoom, has graduated into verb status because of how much it’s getting used.

But does that mean videoconferencing works as well as it should? Today, a new startup called Headroom is coming out of stealth, tapping into a battery of AI tools — computer vision, natural language processing and more — on the belief that the answer to that question is a clear — no bad Wi-Fi interruption here — “no.”

Headroom not only hosts videoconferences, but then provides transcripts, summaries with highlights, gesture recognition, optimised video quality and more, and today it’s announcing that it has raised a seed round of $5 million as it gears up to launch its freemium service into the world.

You can sign up to the waitlist to pilot it, and get other updates here.

The funding is coming from Anna Patterson of Gradient Ventures (Google’s AI venture fund); Evan Nisselson of LDV Capital (a specialist VC backing companies building visual technologies); Yahoo founder Jerry Yang, now of AME Cloud Ventures; Ash Patel of Morado Ventures; Anthony Goldbloom, the co-founder and CEO of Kaggle.com; and Serge Belongie, Cornell Tech associate dean and professor of Computer Vision and Machine Learning.

It’s an interesting group of backers, but that might be because the founders themselves have a pretty illustrious background with years of experience using some of the most cutting-edge visual technologies to build other consumer and enterprise services.

Julian Green — a British transplant — was most recently at Google, where he ran the company’s computer vision products, including the Cloud Vision API that was launched under his watch. He came to Google by way of its acquisition of his previous startup Jetpac, which used deep learning and other AI tools to analyze photos to make travel recommendations. In a previous life, he was one of the co-founders of Houzz, another kind of platform that hinges on visual interactivity.

Russian-born Andrew Rabinovich, meanwhile, spent the last five years at Magic Leap, where he was the head of AI, and before that, the director of deep learning and the head of engineering. Before that, he too was at Google, as a software engineer specializing in computer vision and machine learning.

You might think that leaving their jobs to build an improved videoconferencing service was an opportunistic move, given the huge surge of use that the medium has had this year. Green, however, tells me that they came up with the idea and started building it at the end of 2019, when the term “COVID-19” didn’t even exist.

“But it certainly has made this a more interesting area,” he quipped, adding that it did make raising money significantly easier, too. (The round closed in July, he said.)

Given that Magic Leap had long been in limbo — AR and VR have proven to be incredibly tough to build businesses around, especially in the short to medium-term, even for a startup with hundreds of millions of dollars in VC backing — and could have probably used some more interesting ideas to pivot to; and that Google is Google, with everything tech having an endpoint in Mountain View, it’s also curious that the pair decided to strike out on their own to build Headroom rather than pitch building the tech at their respective previous employers.

Green said the reasons were two-fold. The first has to do with the efficiency of building something when you are small. “I enjoy moving at startup speed,” he said.

And the second has to do with the challenges of building things on legacy platforms versus fresh, from the ground up.

“Google can do anything it wants,” he replied when I asked why he didn’t think of bringing these ideas to the team working on Meet (or Hangouts if you’re a non-business user). “But to run real-time AI on video conferencing, you need to build for that from the start. We started with that assumption,” he said.

All the same, the reasons why Headroom are interesting are also likely going to be the ones that will pose big challenges for it. The new ubiquity (and our present lives working at home) might make us more open to using video calling, but for better or worse, we’re all also now pretty used to what we already use. And for many companies, they’ve now paid up as premium users to one service or another, so they may be reluctant to try out new and less-tested platforms.

But as we’ve seen in tech so many times, sometimes it pays to be a late mover, and the early movers are not always the winners.

The first iteration of Headroom will include features that will automatically take transcripts of the whole conversation, with the ability to use the video replay to edit the transcript if something has gone awry; offer a summary of the key points that are made during the call; and identify gestures to help shift the conversation.

And Green tells me that they are already also working on features that will be added into future iterations. When the videoconference uses supplementary presentation materials, those can also be processed by the engine for highlights and transcription too.

And another feature will optimize the pixels that you see for much better video quality, which should come in especially handy when you or the person/people you are talking to are on poor connections.

“You can understand where and what the pixels are in a video conference and send the right ones,” he explained. “Most of what you see of me and my background is not changing, so those don’t need to be sent all the time.”

All of this taps into some of the more interesting aspects of sophisticated computer vision and natural language algorithms. Creating a summary, for example, relies on technology that is able to suss out not just what you are saying, but what are the most important parts of what you or someone else is saying.

And if you’ve ever been on a videocall and found it hard to make it clear you’ve wanted to say something, without straight-out interrupting the speaker, you’ll understand why gestures might be very useful.

But they can also come in handy if a speaker wants to know if he or she is losing the attention of the audience: The same tech that Headroom is using to detect gestures for people keen to speak up can also be used to detect when they are getting bored or annoyed and pass that information on to the person doing the talking.

“It’s about helping with EQ,” he said, with what I’m sure was a little bit of his tongue in his cheek, but then again we were on a Google Meet, and I may have misread that.

And that brings us to why Headroom is tapping into an interesting opportunity. At their best, when they work, tools like these not only supercharge videoconferences, but they have the potential to solve some of the problems you may have come up against in face-to-face meetings, too. Building software that actually might be better than the “real thing” is one way of making sure that it can have staying power beyond the demands of our current circumstances (which hopefully won’t be permanent circumstances).

Oct
01
2020
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Oracle’s TikTok and Zoom deals won’t move cloud market share needle significantly

While the overall cloud infrastructure market is booming having reached $30 billion last quarter worldwide, Oracle is struggling with market share in the low single digits. It is hoping that the Zoom and TikTok deals can jump start those numbers, but trying to catch the market leaders Amazon, Microsoft and Google, never mind several other companies ahead of it, is going to take a lot more than a couple of brand name customers.

By now, you know Oracle and TikTok were joined together in unholy acquisition matrimony last month in the acquisition equivalent of a shotgun wedding. In spite of that, Oracle founder and chief technology officer Larry Ellison gushed in a September 19 press release about how TikTok had “chosen” his company’s cloud infrastructure service. The statement also indicated that this “choice” was influenced by Zoom’s decision to move some percentage of its workloads to Oracle’s infrastructure cloud earlier this year.

The mechanics of the TikTok deal aside, the question is how big an effect will these two customers have on the company’s overall cloud infrastructure market share. We asked a couple of firms who closely watch all things cloud.

John Dinsdale, chief analyst at Synergy Research Group, wasn’t terribly optimistic that they would have much material impact on moving the market share needle for the database giant. “Oracle’s cloud infrastructure services growth has been consistently below overall IaaS and PaaS market growth rates so its market share has [actually] been nudging downward. Zoom may be a good win but it is unlikely to move the needle too much — and remember Zoom also buys cloud services from AWS,” Dinsdale told TechCrunch.

As for TikTok, Dinsdale, like the rest of us, wasn’t clear how that deal would ultimately play out, but he says even with both companies in the fold, it wasn’t going to shift market share as much as Oracle might hope. “Hypothetically, even if Zoom/TikTok helped Oracle increase its cloud infrastructure service revenues 50% over 12 months, which would be a real stretch, its market share would still be nearer to 2% than 3%. This compares with Google at 9%, Microsoft 18% and AWS 33%,” Dinsdale said.

He did point out that the company’s SaaS business is much stronger. “Broadening the scope a little to other cloud services, Oracle’s SaaS growth is running roughly in line with overall market SaaS market growth so market share is steady. Oracle’s share of the total enterprise SaaS market is running at around 6%, though if you drill down to the ERP segment it is obviously doing much better than that,” he said.

Canalys, another firm that follows the cloud infrastructure market says their numbers tell a similar story for Oracle. While it’s doing well in Saas with 7.8% market share, it’s struggling in IaaS/PaaS.

“For IaaS/PaaS, Oracle Cloud is at 1.9% for Q2 2020 and that isn’t moving much. The top three providers are AWS, Azure and Google Cloud, who have 30.8%, 20.2% and 6.2% respectively,” Blake Murray from Canalys told TechCrunch.

It’s worth keeping in mind that Google hired Diane Greene five years ago with the hope of accelerating its cloud infrastructure business. Former Oracle exec Thomas Kurian replaced her two years ago and the company’s market share still hasn’t reached double digits in spite of a period of big overall market growth, showing how much of a challenge it is to move the needle in a significant way.

Another big company, IBM bought Red Hat two years ago for $34 billion with an eye toward improving its cloud business, and while Red Hat has continued to do well, it does not seem to have much impact on the company’s overall cloud infrastructure market share, which has been superseded by Alibaba in fourth place, according to Synergy’s numbers. Both companies are in the single digits.

Synergy Research Q2 2020 cloud infrastructure market share graphs

Image Credits: Synergy Research

All that means, even with these two clients, the company still has a long way to go to be relevant in the cloud infrastructure arena in the near term. What’s unknown is if this new business will help act as lures for other new business over time, but for now it’s going to take a lot more than a couple of good deals to be relevant — and as Google and IBM have demonstrated, it’s extremely challenging to gain chunks of market share.

Sep
22
2020
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Microsoft Teams gets breakout rooms, custom layouts and virtual commutes

Unsurprisingly, Teams has become a major focus for Microsoft during the COVID-19 pandemic, so it’s no surprise that the company is using its annual Ignite IT conference to announce a number of new features for the service.

Today’s announcements follow the launch of features like Together Mode and dynamic view earlier this summer.

Together Mode, which puts cutouts of meeting participants in different settings, is getting a bit of an update today with the launch of new scenes: auditoriums, coffee shops and conference rooms. Like before, the presenter chooses the scene, but what’s new now is that Microsoft is also using machine learning to ensure that participants are automatically centered in their virtual chairs, making the whole scene look just a little bit more natural (and despite what Microsoft’s research shows, I can never help but think that this all looks a bit goofy, maybe because it reminds me of the opening credits of The Muppet Show).

Image Credits: Microsoft

Also new in Teams is custom layouts, which allow presenters to customize how their presentations — and their own video feeds — appear. With this, a presenter can superimpose her own video image over the presentation, for example.

Image Credits: Microsoft

Breakout rooms, a feature that is getting a lot of use in Zoom these days, is now also coming to Teams. Microsoft calls it the most requested feature in Teams and, like in similar products, it allows meeting organizers to split participants into smaller groups — and the meeting organizer can then go from room to room. Unsurprisingly, this feature is especially popular with teachers, though companies, too, often use it to facilitate brainstorming sessions, for example.

Image Credits: Microsoft

After exhausting all your brainstorming power in those breakout rooms and finishing up your meeting, Teams can now also send you an automatic recap of a meeting that includes a recording, transcript, shared files and more. These recaps will automatically appear on your Outlook calendar. In the future, Microsoft will also enable the ability to automatically store these recordings on SharePoint.

For companies that regularly host large meetings, Microsoft will launch support for up to 1,000 participants in the near future. Attendees in these meetings will get the full Teams experience, Microsoft promises. Later, Microsoft will also enable view-only meetings for up to 20,000 participants. Both of these features will become available as part of a new “Advanced Communications” plan, which is probably no surprise, given how much bandwidth and compute power it will likely take to manage a 1,000-person meeting.

Image Credits: Microsoft

Microsoft also made two hardware announcements related to Teams today. The first is the launch of what it calls “Microsoft Teams panels,” which are essentially small tablets that businesses can put outside of their meeting rooms for wayfinding. One cool feature here — especially as businesses start planning their post-pandemic office strategy — is that these devices will be able to use information from the cameras in the room to count how many people are attending a meeting in person and then show remaining room capacity, for example.

The company also today announced that the giant Surface Hub 2S 85-inch model will be available in January 2021.

And there is more. Microsoft is also launching new Teams features for front-line workers to help schedule shifts, alert workers when they are using Teams off-shift and praise badges that enable organizations to recognize workers (though those workers would probably prefer hard cash over a digital badge).

Also new is an integration between Teams and RealWear head-mounted devices for remote collaboration and a new Walkie Talkie app for Android.

And since digital badges aren’t usually enough to improve employee well-being, Microsoft is also adding a new set of well-being features to Teams. These provide users with personalized recommendations to help change habits and improve well-being and productivity.

Image Credits: Microsoft

That includes a new “virtual commute” feature that includes an integration with Headspace and an emotional check-in experience.

I’ve always been a fan of short and manageable commutes for getting some distance between work and home, but that’s not exactly a thing right now. Maybe Headspace works as an example, but there’s only so much Andy Puddicombe I can take. Still, I think I’ll keep my emotional check-ins to myself, though Microsoft obviously notes that it will keep all of that information private.

And while businesses now care about your emotional well-being (because it’s closely related to your productivity), managers mostly care about the work you get done. For them, Workplace Analytics is coming to Teams, giving “managers line of sight into teamwork norms like after-hours collaboration, focus time, meeting effectiveness, and cross-company connections. These will then be compared to averages among similar teams to provide managers with actionable insights.”

If that doesn’t make your manager happy, what will? Maybe a digital praise badge?

Aug
24
2020
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Meet the anti-antitrust startup club

When Congress called in tech CEOs to testify a few weeks ago, it felt like a defining moment. Hundreds of startups have become unicorns, with the largest worth more than $1 trillion (or perhaps $2 trillion). Indeed, modern tech companies have become so entrenched, Facebook is the only one of the Big Five American tech shops worth less than 13 figures.

The titanic valuations of many companies are predicated on current performance, cash on hand and lofty expectations for future growth. The pandemic has done little to stem Big Tech’s forward march and many startups have seen growth rates accelerate as other sectors rushed to support a suddenly remote workforce.

But inside tech’s current moment in the sun is a concern that Congress worked to highlight: Are these firms behaving anti-competitively?

By now you’ve heard the arguments concerning why Big Tech may be too big, but there’s a neat second story that we, the Equity crew, have been chatting about: Some startups are racing into the big kill zone.

They have to be a bit foolhardy to take on Google Gmail and Search, Amazon’s e-commerce platform or Apple’s App Store. Yet, there are startups targeting all of these categories and more, some flush with VC funding from investors who are eager to take a swing at tech’s biggest players

If the little companies manage to carve material market share for themselves, arguments that Big Tech was just too big to kill — let alone fail — will dissolve. But today, their incumbency is a reality and these startups are merely bold.

Still, when we look at the work being done, there are enough companies staring down the most valuable companies in American history (on an unadjusted basis) that we had to shout them out. Say hello to the “anti-antitrust club.”

Hey and Superhuman are coming after Gmail

Gmail has been the undisputed leader in consumer email for years (if not enterprise email, where Microsoft has massive inroads due to Exchange and Outlook). Startups have contested that market, including Mailbox, which sold to Dropbox for about $100 million back in 2013, but whenever a new feature came along that might entice users, Gmail managed to suck it up into its app.

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